Posted Sunday morning, May 28, 2017.
“And every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves upon the earth…”: The Animals Entering Noah’s Ark by Jacopo Bassano. 1570s.
First thing Friday morning, after checking the headlines online to see if the world had ended, the Republic was still standing, and the Mets had won and the Republican had lost Montana’s special Congressional election Thursday--Not yet. Yes, but I wouldn't give it long odds. Nope, and nope.---I did what I always do and began the day by reading some Scripture.
Ok, I just broke one of the Commandments there. I think. Not sure which one but I'm pretty sure there's one that makes lying a shalt not. I don't read the bible every morning. I do read it. Probably more often than your average godless heathen. I read it to be able to cite it for my own purpose. Which is why I did in truth read it today. One of my least favorite parts. Genesis, Chapters 6-9.
That's the story of Noah and the ark, a story I've hated since I was in grade school.
I hated it when I was a kid for a number of reasons but first and foremost because it gave me nightmares. To me it was a horror story in which God was the monster. I didn't identify with Noah and his sons. I identified with the people outside the ark pounding on the sides as the waters rose around them. I grasped at once that God in his righteous, murderous wrath was drowning little children and babies along with their parents. Wicked as the adults might have been, I couldn't understand how God could think their kids deserved to die along with them.
It shook my faith.
What kind of God would do that, I wondered.
It certainly wasn't a kind and merciful one.
Which is the God I was taught to believe in, the one I needed to believe in as I learned that the world was a terrifying and brutal place. The God Noah worshipped was more like an insane and malevolent demon. If Noah's God was the God running the show, it made sense that children died every day of starvation and disease and in wars and car accidents. The story of the Flood was a story about how my good and beneficent and protective God didn't exist.
I didn't much like Noah himself either. Didn't seem very neighborly of him to let his neighbors drown like that. And I wondered what he did that made that mad demon of a god think so highly of him and the answer I came up with is that he was very good at worshipping the demon. I figured he prayed a lot and that most of his praying was telling the demon what a good guy he was and what a wonderful god the demon was. A hypocrite, a liar, and a boaster.
I hated the stories of Abraham and Isaac and Sodom and Gomorrah for the same reason---they showed a demon-god at work too.
I would tell myself God was always going to put a stop to it before Abraham slit Isaac's throat, but Abraham didn't know that. God's ordering him to slaughter his child like a sacrificial goat seemed like just the sort of blood-thirsty lunacy the God he knew and worshiped would do. He doesn't even question it. Nor does he express any relief when the angel tells him to put down the knife, the test's over and he passed. God tells you to kill your own kid, you just do it. He tells you not to, he was just fooling, you don't, and you don't complain and don't harbor any resentment and you certainly don't stop worshipping the bastard, even though he's a malevolent lunatic and you don't know what sort of needless, insane test of your fidelity he's liable to cook up next.
As for Sodom and Gomorrah, again: the adults in both towns might have deserved their smitings, but the kids? And why did he punish Lot's wife for a normal and probably reflexive act of curiosity? Who wouldn't take a quick look back to see their hometown going up in flames and with it your home, your possessions, and, incidentally, your family, friends, and neighbors?
The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin. 1852
You can imagine how I felt when I read the in the books of Exodus and Joshua and Judges and Kings how this same malevolent lunatic of a God was in the habit of ordering up genocides.
But the story of Noah started me down the path to early apostasy and agnosticism and I didn't like it. I wanted to believe in a loving, merciful, protective God, and going by his own word---the bible was the word of God, after all---he wasn't any of those things.
I also hated the story for insulting my intelligence. I'm not sure when it dawned that it was in fact a story, an obvious myth---and not as interesting as any of the Greeks'---we poor mortal saps were meant to take as true in order that we'd be scared by it into unquestioning and abject obedience. The rainbow covenant had a giant loophole. God promised no more floods. He left himself the option of the fire next time.
And I cottoned on to the fact that it wasn't just God we were meant to abjectly obey either. It was the priests and nuns who claimed they spoke for him too. I was already having problems with ecclesiastical authority, star altar boy as I was. I'm not sure if I've ever mentioned it but my confirmation name is Thomas, and not as in Aquinas. As in Doubting. And I picked it in fourth grade.
In Mr Schick's sixth grade religion class we were taught that the Catholic Church didn't go in for biblical literalism. Some of what's in the bible is there because human beings just messed up, Mr Schick said. They misunderstood and mistranslated. They didn't know how to separate history from folk tale and didn't know from science. God inspired the scribes but he didn't give dictation. And much of what's in there is pure storytelling for storytelling's sake, and the story of Noah and the ark is storytelling. It was probably inspired by somebody's memory of a devastating local flood caused by a river overflowing its banks, Mr Schick told us, but it was otherwise a wholly made up story, a tall tale not even any more truthful than the legends of Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill. Never mind the absurdity of the idea that four men, Noah and his three doltish sons, working with hand tools could build a boat big enough to fit "every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves upon the earth". The reason nobody had ever found the remains of the ark was that there never was an ark. And the reason the geologic record didn't contain evidence of a world-drowning deluge 5000 years ago or so was there hadn't been one. In short, we were taught that good young Catholics should believe cultural anthropology, historiography, archaeology, and science ahead of the what the bible seemed to be telling us.
By the time I graduated from grade school, I knew better than to take the bible literally and I thought all intelligent adults did too.
I can't say it came as a shock to me as I travelled through life that the world wasn't over-crowded with intelligent adults, but it has been a continual surprise how few there actually are. You'd think by now I'd be used to it, but nope. I'm still stunned to find out there are people living in 21st Century America who would be at home in 14th Century Europe, at least in their thinking the universe runs on magic and is ruled by a captious, capricious, and unpredictably meddlesome wizard prone to tantrums in which he's apt to smite thousands of "his children" from the face of the planet.
Out in Montana voters just decided to send one of them to Congress.
Let's put aside for now a discussion of how wrong it is that someone up on an assault rap because he decided it would be a good idea to beat up a reporter the day before the election is on his way to Washington to take his place as a member of the United States House of Representatives. Greg Gianforte is a creationist and biblical literalist who appears to think bible stories should be the basis of public policy. A grown man who thinks the Flood really happened and that evolution didn't is set to vote on laws that will affect the health, wealth, and well-being of 300 million people living and working in a global economy.
"There's nothing in the Bible that talks about retirement. And yet it's been an accepted concept in our culture today. Nowhere does it say, 'Well, he was a good and faithful servant, so he went to the beach... The example I think of is Noah. How old was Noah when he built the ark? 600. He wasn't like, cashing Social Security checks, he wasn't hanging out, he was working. So, I think we have an obligation to work. The role we have in work may change over time, but the concept of retirement is not biblical."
In his short story “Prairie Girl”, Thomas McGuane wrote about how empty Montana is of human beings and how that emptiness can affect the thinking of the few human beings out there can turn cranky and inward and untether itself from reality:
"They set out in the middle of June, in Mary’s big Lincoln, heading for the great, nearly empty stretches of Northern Montana, where underpopulated counties would deny the government’s right to tax them, attempt to secede from the Union, issue their own money in the form of scrip. Some radicalized soothsayer would arise---a crop duster, a diesel mechanic, a gunsmith---then fade away, and the region would go back to sparse agriculture, a cow every hundred acres, a trailer house with a basketball backboard and a muddy track. Minds spun in the solitude."
When I first heard about him and his creationist beliefs---he thinks God created the earth 10,000 years ago pretty much the way the Bible says he did, and dinosaurs and human beings, who were definitely not descended from apes, shared space---I'd assumed Gianforte was a product of that emptiness. Turns out that although he's lived in Montana for over twenty years it's been in the relatively cosmopolitan relative metropolis of Bozeman, and he grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, Mrs M's hometown, in fact. He's her exact contemporary too. They could have been grade school or high school classmates, except Mrs M went to Catholic schools, where she got a good education, and he went to public schools, where, apparently, he didn't. Not of the kind that protected him from mistaking fairy tales for actual history.
He did learn a few things about math and technology. He has a bachelor's and master's degree in engineering and has made a fortune designing and marketing computer software. He formed and ran two highly successful businesses, the first of which he sold in 1994 for 10 million dollars, the second in 2011 for 1.5 billion.
He is a philanthropist, but his money seems to go mainly to Fundamentalist Christian sponsored programs and causes, including, according to Wikipedia, "the Family Research Council, which has advocated for 'criminal sanctions' on homosexual behavior; Focus on the Family, which advocates for a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage; and the Montana Family Foundation, which is 'the state's primary advocate against LGBT policies.'" And he's donated a T-rex skeleton to a creationist museum.
What this adds up to is a.) Gianforte is very smart; b.) he's a bigot; and c.) he's one of those very smart people who balance out their brains by being very smart in one area while being complete idiots in another.
The Flood happened.
- God in his divine wisdom and mercy wiped out every man, woman, and child on earth except for Noah and his family.
- Noah built an ark that not only saved himself and his family but all the birds, insects, and land-dwelling mammals and reptiles, including, incidentally, the dinosaurs.
- Noah was 600 years old at the time.
- Noah should be our example in our old age.
- The way people lived in a pre-literate society with a subsistence economy based mainly on herding sheep is the model for the way we should live now.
Gianforte thinks people shouldn't retire because the bible says nothing about retirement. The bible says nothing about the United States, Montana, computers, or the wisdom of electing ignoramuses with anger management issues to government office either---although it does have a thing or two to say about fools in positions of responsibility and leadership. The bible says nothing about a lot of things that matter to us today because it wasn't written as a how-to manual for surviving life in the 21st Century.
You know what is talked about in the bible, of course. Slavery. A lot. And, except in the case of the Israelites in Egypt, uncritically, often approvingly. And one of those places where it's talked about uncritically is Genesis, right there at the end of the story of Noah when Noah curses his son Ham, calling him by his other name Canaan.
“Cursed be Canaan;
a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”
He also said,
“Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.
God enlarge Japheth,
and let him dwell in the tents of Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.”
This was justification for the Israelites taking the Canaanites' land when they got out of Egypt and slaughtering all and sundry, enslaving the few Canaanites they left alive. One of the first genocides that demon god ordered. But I learned in college that Southerners used it as justification for black chattel slavery. Somehow Ham or his descendants wound up in Africa, taking the curse with them. I don't know how or how he or they became black. But it means that what is in the bible is the roots of Secession and the Civil War.
If I'd known that back in Mr Schick's religion class, it'd have turned me straight away from a young doubting Thomas into a precocious atheist.
Now, it may be that Gianforte didn't mean we should all follow Noah's example and work until we drop. He might just have been stating his own intention to be still working when he's 600 years old. That's great, if he can manage it. If he doesn't get sick or become disabled. He's rich. He's always worked a desk job so he odds are against his suffering a crippling on the job injury. He's his own boss so he doesn't have to worry about being laid off and not being able to find another job because no company wants to hire an old man. He may not think people who aren't in his position should never retire, never mind what the bible says or doesn't say.
But here's the thing.
He's a Republican.
An ultra-conservative one.
And a Trump supporter.
And the Trump Administration supports him. Mike Pence thinks he's swell.
On his campaign webpage, Gianforte says he's against cuts in Medicaid and Social Security but Trump promised he was against those cuts too and yet there they are in his budget. When he gets to Washington Gianforte is going to vote for Trump's budget. He'll be voting for cuts in Social Security and Medicaid. He'll be voting for cuts in a number of programs that help old people who aren't rich stay in their homes, stay warm, and stay fed.
He'll be voting to take away many people's hopes for a comfortable and healthy old age and their chance to retire.
In addition, he's against the idea of the government helping people live long enough to retire.
He'll be taking his seat in Congress too late to vote for the ACHA. But he would have if he could have, though he was too craven to say so during the campaign---that's what set him off when he assaulted Peter Jacobs. Jacobs asked him to stop being a weasel and tell the people he was asking to vote for him where he stood. It my not have been Jacobs Gianforte was attacking but a mirror reflecting his cowardice.
More telling than the biblical literalism in Gianforte's opinion about retirement is how he imagines retirees spending their Social Security checks loafing at the beach.
Know where most people spend their Social Security checks? At the grocery store.
But, like I said, Gianforte's a Republican, and Republicans these days see everybody who gets a government check as a cheat and a thief. You can point out to them that people on Social Security are just getting back money they earned and paid into the system and if they want to spend what little they have left after buying groceries and paying the rent and putting gas in their cars hanging out at the beach, what's wrong with that? And they'll just stare at you like you're a fool.
Everybody knows that only Republicans work and pay taxes. And besides, where do people who aren't rich get off thinking they're entitled to any fun, comfort, or pleasure? Life is stern and earnest and we're here to work and make money, and if you don't earn enough of it to retire, too bad. Read your bible. You work until you drop.
Noah lived to be 950. The bible doesn't say what he did for all of his remaining 350 years after the ark came to rest high and dry on top of Mount Ararat, but it doesn't appear to be boat-building. He spent some of it farming and growing grapes for wine---and at least one night of it notoriously passed out drunk. He invented agriculture and, apparently, winemaking. By Gianforte's way of reading the bible then---only what's specifically mentioned is allowed---that's what we all should be doing for work, farming and making wine. But Gianforte has left himself an out.
The nature of work can change, he says.
But not, necessarily, the nature of anything Gianforte likes the way it is because it suits his needs or agrees with his prejudices or makes him money.
This is the way it's always been for most bible thumpers and God-botherers.
They take as the literal word of God whatever passages they interpret as supporting their prejudices and self-serving inclinations and ignore what doesn't. All of Matthew Chapters 5-7, for example. Like me and the devil, they cite scripture for their own purpose.